Pakistani Worshippers Attacked on Easter Sunday

Monday, March 28, 2005

One Christian killed, seven injured in village church shooting.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, March 28 (Compass) -- Armed gunmen attacked Christian worshippers as they emerged from Easter Sunday services in a village church near the southern outskirts of Lahore yesterday, killing one young Christian man and injuring seven other congregants.

Irshad Masih, in his early 20s, died in the church yard from a bullet that struck his head during a half hour of indiscriminate shooting by four attackers. The deceased leaves behind an 18-year-old wife and an infant daughter.

Seven other victims suffering severe gunshot wounds in their legs, abdomen and other parts of their bodies were hospitalized at Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital. Attending doctors declared this morning that all were now off the critical list.

Pastor Riaz Gill of Victory Church International had completed Easter Sunday celebrations and then dismissed his congregation at 10:30 yesterday morning. As the people left the church, located in Khamba village in the Wapda Town Phase II sector of Lahore, four young men started shooting at the worshippers.

According to eyewitnesses at the church, police summoned to the scene initially arrested three of the four suspects, recovering at least one rifle and a pistol. But police later told an investigative team from Lahore’s Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) that they had only arrested two of the accused culprits, claiming that another two suspects, who were minors, had escaped.

The arrested attackers were identified as two brothers, Mukhtar Dogar and Zulfiqar Ali, both sons of Din Mohammad, while the two escaped accomplices were also brothers, Imran Kali and Shah Behram Gogi, reportedly the minor sons of Sardar Mohammad.

One hospitalized victim told CLAAS that the two police constables assigned to guard the church during worship services left their posts when the attack started.

Under government regulations, police guards at minority places of worship are required to remain at the premises for religious services until everyone has left the site. But an officer at the police station investigating the case claimed that the two guards had left the premises because the church service had concluded at 9 a.m., long before the shooting began.

According to police accounts cited in Lahore’s Daily Times newspaper today, the shootings took place as the victims “along with other Christians were going home” from Easter church services, rather than at the church itself.

The same article attributed the attack to a “property dispute” between Irshad Masih and the two Dogar brothers.

Station House Officer Mustansar at the Sattokatla police station told CLAAS investigators yesterday that Christians had attacked the assailants first and wounded Zulfiqar Ali, causing the Dogars to start shooting at the Christians “in self-defense.” He also declared that the shooting represented only “a minor issue of land dispute,” insisting that there were “no factors of terrorism involved in it.”

“The police are trying to make this out to be a land dispute,” a CLAAS lawyer investigating the case said, “so that it will not appear to be a terrorist attack against the Christian community.”

Reportedly the local Dogar caste of Muslims dominant in the area have been trying to renege on their ancestors’ property allocation many decades ago, which gave Khamba village’s Christian community the land where they built their church and set up a graveyard.

“Khamba village was originally some distance away from Lahore,” explained one CLAAS lawyer, “but as the city has expanded over the past couple of years, land prices in Wapda Town have shot up perhaps 200 times in value.”

A few months back, the Dogar landlords had demolished some Christian graves with a tractor, insisting that the small community of 60 to 70 Christian families relinquish the graveyard and adjoining church property. “So yes, there was a dispute, but the Christian community had not retaliated,” the CLAAS lawyer said.

“The government authorities want to show that this is not an act of terrorism, that it was just an individual act, not against the Christian community,” one source told Compass. “But actually, it is terrorism, because terrorism is defined as anything that is done to terrorize people. That’s what they did. They attacked people and started indiscriminate firing upon a congregation of some 150 people!”

John Alexander Mali, Bishop of Lahore of the Church of Pakistan, was expected to attend today’s funeral services for Irshad Masih. Mali has reportedly intervened with authorities on the case, insisting that the assailants be charged under Section 780 of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorist Act.

In an initial report released today, CLAAS investigators disputed the legality of the formal First Investigation Report (FIR), which they saw being prepared by officials at the police station yesterday in the absence of the deceased’s father, Said Masih.

As the official plaintiff, Said Masih was required by Pakistani law to be present during the writing and signing of the FIR. But police had reportedly spirited the bereaved father away during the afternoon and evening hours of Sunday, while they composed the text of the FIR. Said Masih has since repudiated the FIR for containing untrue and distorted facts.

Pakistan’s other English-language newspapers did not report the Khamba attack. But according to an article in today’s The News, an Islamabad official assured local reporters yesterday that “security was beefed up in all the churches of the district to avert any untoward incident” during Easter observances.

A daily laborer like most of the poor Christians in Khamba village, Irshad Masih is survived by his wife, Fazia, an infant daughter Eman, his parents Said and Kausar Bibi Masih, and two single brothers, Iqbal and Fiaz.